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Mar 19, 2016

Alleged cult leader plays shell game with US foreign aid

Co-produced with PRX Logo

UPDATE, May 28, 2016: Reporters Matt Smith and Amy Walters followed up on what’s happened since we first told you about how the U.S. government continued to give grants to a charitable organization that was linked to an international fugitive. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.

You know those Planet Aid clothing donation boxes you see on the side of the road? Those clothes and over $130 million in U.S. grant money are supposed to help people in southern Africa.

But when Reveal went to Malawi to find out what actually happened, people told us that some of the projects didn’t pan out.

Our investigation finds that the U.S. government knew an international fugitive was linked to the projects, but kept the money flowing. Reveal goes behind the bin and across an ocean to find out what’s going on.

Matt Smith can be reached at msmith@cironline.org, and Amy Walters can be reached at awalters@cironline.org. Follow them on Twitter: @SFMattSmith and @AmyWalters_.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: US taxpayers are financing alleged cult through African aid charities

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Rattle Hymn” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Bells of Wonder pt1” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Famous Cruises Through Customs” from “The Many Moods of Ben Benjamin Vol. 1” (Ghostly International)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Sassy Blanche” from “The Many Moods Of Ben Benjamin Vol. 1” (Ghostly International)
  • The Sun Blindness, “Crack in the Concrete” from “Tomorrow Is Today” (CCommunity)
  • Jim Briggs, “Wonder Rattle” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Groove” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Wonderfon” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Wonderfon (beatless version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Wonderfon (bad trip version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Wonderfon (beatless dread version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Alexandre Navarro, “All Around” from “Lost Cities” (Dronarivm)
  • MADS, “Burning” from “Peaks” (kuleszamusic)
  • Jim Briggs, "A Hidden World" (Cut-Off Man Records)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
In the 1970s, a free thinking Danish woman wanted to see the world.
Speaker 2: To go out and travel to somewhere ...
Al: So [inaudible 00:00:13] joined The Teachers Group, a Danish organization that promised to lift people out of poverty in Zimbabwe, Angola, and Mozambique.
Speaker 2: I was responsible for finances.
Al: But [inaudible 00:00:24] says the group was taking more money out of Africa than it was bringing in.
Speaker 2: We could carry the money in a bag on our stomach.
Al: Now she says it could be happening all over again. This time, with millions of US tax dollars going to a charity called Planet Aid, linked to the Teachers Group.
Speaker 2: It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Planet Aid money would be used in the same system.
Al: Are US tax dollars hurting Africans rather than helping them?
Speaker 2: It's like slavery.
Al: That's coming up on Reveal.
Speaker 3: Reveal is supported by Squarespace. The simplest way to capture your passion with a beautiful website. If there's an idea or project you're itching to show the world, you should. With Squarespace's simple tools and captivating templates, showcasing your hard work is the easy part. Start your free trial today. Visit squarespace.com/reveal. You should. Squarespace.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Maybe you've seen these Planet Aid clothing donation boxes in shopping center parking lots. They're in 21 states right now, usually big, bright, yellow bins, and right on the front are the words "Planet Aid." They sell used clothes in places like Africa and the money, they say, goes to aid projects around the world. But what if it doesn't?
Back in 2001, an FBI report linked to a Danish money laundering organization. Some call it Tvind, some call it the Teachers Group. Former members, historians, the press, you'll hear them refer to it pretty regularly as a mind controlling cult. This is a pretty big deal because it's just not used clothing we're talking about. The US government has also spent more than a $130 million on Planet Aid. If you're paying taxes, you're contributing, through some very special grant programs run by the US Department of Agriculture.
Speaker 4: Under the headline Food for Progress, USDA has partnered with Planet Aid to create rural development and economic growth benefiting more than half a million people in Malawi.
Al: Since 2004, US government has spent that money in Planet Aid projects in Mozambique and Malawi.
Charles: One of the reasons that Planet Aid was chosen in based on, as they say in Hollywood, the body of work.
Al: That's Charles Rush, he works for the USDA. In this promotional video from 2010, he says he's pleased with Planet Aid's work. Malawi is generally considered the poorest country in the world. People don't turn food away here. It's not uncommon for rural Malawians to eat just one meal a day. Planet Aid claims a lot of the US funds went to feed hungry Malawians through their farmers' clubs projects.
Speaker 4: Since the inception of the USDA farmers' clubs in Malawi, remarkable outcomes have been achieved. 240 farmers' clubs have been established with 12,000 members. 8,000 farmers are now growing more than four different types of crops.
Al: But after our reporters Amy Walters and Matt Smith started digging in to those claims, we had a lot of questions. Now just to be clear, Planet Aid also runs schools and an AIDS prevention program, but we focused on the farmers' clubs. We sent Matt and Amy to Malawi to find out what was really going on.
[00:04:00] (singing)
Amy: We arrived at the village with a woman who is working on these projects. This crowd of women from the village, they came out of nowhere in these beautiful, colorful Malawian clothes, singing. I've never been welcomed like that.
Al: That's Amy, and this is just one stop on a tour that she and Matt were taking the villages up and down Malawi.
Matt: They took us to the center of the village. The houses were mud bricks. There was a clearing under some trees, and men were in their pressed shirts, like it was a special occasion. There were folding chairs and a line for the chief and a few village officials. Other men, they stood to the side. On the other side, women sat on the ground, so did the dozen or so children.
Al: They visited four farmers' club sites and talked to regional managers. Malawi has two main cities, Blantyre in the south and the capital, Lilongwe, in the center of the country. But you get 20 minutes outside either town and you barely see anything that wasn't taken straight out of the red soil. There's no asphalt on the red dust roads. Everyone here is a farmer, growing food to feed their families.
Jackson: Yeah, this is my home [inaudible 00:05:09]
Amy: [Jackson Netamboka 00:05:11] used to run a lot of Planet Aid's farmers' club projects here. He agreed to take us around, and he told us the projects weren't what they seemed. The first sign was that big welcome we got. Jackson says when villagers come out singing and dancing, a lot of the time, it's a show for foreigners. English isn't his first language, so you'll have to listen carefully. What he has to say is important. People in Malawi are starving.
Jackson: Maybe they eat at the west [inaudible 00:05:40] the kids are not getting a balanced diet, then they have ... cannot be good for them. Stunted growth and also sometimes so many illnesses.
Amy:
[00:06:00]
Jackson took the job with Planet Aid so he could help his people. He was actually in that Planet Aid promotional video.
Jackson: Then those crabs [inaudible 00:06:00]
Matt: Now, he seems less inclined to promote his former employer.
Amy: What's the name of the area?
Jackson: This is [Anjuri 00:06:13], yeah Anjuri.
Amy: Jackson's from Anjuli, here in the heart of the [Chiradzulu 00:06:18] District in Southern Malawi.
Jackson: [foreign language 00:06:21]
Amy: Starting in 2006, Planet Aid promised the US government it would transform farmers' lives here. Malawians would grow more food to eat and to sell. Planet Aid claimed the harvest doubled in just three years. That's not what Jackson saw.
Jackson: It was like there are just a few plants and some maybe they are dry, and some maybe they are not there because they are not given adequate inputs like seeds and fertilizer.
Matt: What Jackson's telling us is the farmers didn't get enough seeds or fertilizers so the crops never took off. One Planet Aid demonstration garden we saw was filled with piles of bricks drying in the sun.
Amy: Along with the vegetables, Planet Aid promised pigs and goats to breed as livestock. [inaudible 00:07:10] is a farmer nearby. He says they did get one pig and one goat. Is the pig still alive?
Speaker 9: No.
Amy: Is the goat still alive.
Speaker 9: No.
Amy: So no other animals?
Speaker 9: No. We don't have any pig and goat in our homes because of [inaudible 00:07:28] donation.
Matt: In several other villages we visited, we learned the animals were also weak and died before they could breed.
Amy: Planet Aid promised water pumps too so farmers were no longer dependent on the seasonal rains to grow food, but in the village of Anjuli, they only gave away one pump. They were actually selling the rest. Out of 300 families, only the village chief bought one.
Matt: When we met him, that pump was in tatters.
[00:08:00]
Speaker 10:
[foreign language 00:07:57]
Amy: This pipe that's supporting the road pump, you could tell it's several different pieces he's tying together with what used to be a black plastic garbage bag.
Matt: [inaudible 00:08:10] is the chief's name. He took out a loan to buy the hundred-dollar pump. That money could have paid for a year of school for one of his children. It took him two years to pay it off.
Amy: Remember, US tax payers poured millions of dollars into these projects, but wherever we went, it didn't look like all that money hit the ground. There was one farmer, the farmer who was given the pump for free, his life improved some, but because he was sharing the water with the whole village, even that sometimes ran out. The rest of the farmers we spoke with said their lives haven't changed a bit, not anything the farmers' clubs had done.
Matt: Jackson told us Planet Aid was cheating the people of Malawi.
Jackson: It was cheating. It is not the reality. It was cheating.
Matt: What did you think the reality was?
Jackson: The reality, it was ... the farmers were not benefiting from farmers' club. That is the reality.
Matt: Jackson says cheating, it was part of his job.
Amy: Whenever donors, donors like the USDA would come to check on the Planet Aid projects, Jackson was charged with sprucing them up. Around the edges of the farms, he replaced dying plants with sturdy, healthy ones, all for show.
Jackson: We are transferring some of the plants and watering them to make sure that the following day, when the officials come, things they're okay.
Amy: Jackson was also told to track down successful farmers, farmers who weren't part of farmers' club at all. He showed us one of these special heather gray t-shirts he would have them wear.
Jackson: It's saying farmers' club behind, then in front, it's Planet Aid and a USDA-funded program.
Amy:
[00:10:00]
A US taxpayer-funded program. Jackson used the USDA t-shirts to convince donors the project was a success.
Matt: The village chief was roped in too. Remember that Planet Aid video promoting the USDA project? Chief [inaudible 00:10:09] also played a part.
Speaker 10: [foreign language 00:10:13]
Matt: We showed the chief the video where he's saying "I grew tomatoes and raised $1,000 dollars."
Speaker 10: [foreign language 00:10:18]
Matt: He says that wasn't true. He grew the tomatoes on his own, before this farmers' club even showed up, and he made the money on his own too. Not even his name is right. The video identifies the chief as [inaudible 00:10:36], but it's really [inaudible 00:10:40]. Now, he says the video is painful to watch. He's sorry for all the things he said before because they weren't true.
Amy: And Jackson Netamboka says he's sorry too, because Jackson knew where the money was going all along.
Jackson: We can say Teachers Group benefited themselves, they benefited from this and not other people.
Matt: Jackson told us the US government money, or at least some of it, was going to the Teachers Group, and Jackson told us he was once a member of the Teachers Group himself.
Al: What is this Teachers Group? In Denmark, everyone knows about them. Articles have been popping up in the Danish press for decades unveiling scandals and accusations. In 2002, the Teachers Group was put on trial for embezzlement. Two high-ranking members were found guilty as charged. But the leader, a former schoolteacher named Mogens Amdi Petersen, was never convicted. He's still charged with those crimes, and today, he's a fugitive from the law. The Teachers Group runs dozens of organizations all around the world. One of them is Planet Aid. The group got started in Denmark, so that's where Matt and Amy pick up the trail.
Amy: We just left Copenhagen this morning and we're heading west now.
[00:12:00] Matt and I landed in Copenhagen, the capital. After close to a day of driving halfway across the country, we finally found ourselves in [inaudible 00:12:07], the town where Hans Christian Andersen was born.
This is the house.
Matt: It's a pretty nice house for a commune.
Amy: The house we're standing in front of, it's a stately, wide house, with a black tile roof. These two stories tall, hard to tell exactly though, without going in.
Behind the well-tended hedge are BMWs parked in the gravel U-shaped driveway. To many Danes, this is known as the first commune in Denmark. It's where Amdi Petersen got his start.
Carson: He was a very impressive person.
Amy: Carson [inaudible 00:12:40] lived there too. He was one Amdi's comrades back then.
Carson: People, they listened very much to him.
Amy: Amdi could command attention like no one he'd ever seen. Carson says he still does.
Carson: Inside the Teachers Group, people who are stupid enough to believe it look at him as a great person, compare him with Chairman Mao or Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Amy: But Carson's feelings have changed. This is how he describes his old friend now.
Carson: One of the worst criminals in his total work.
Amy: As I mentioned earlier, Amdi is an international fugitive now. He's refused to return to Denmark to face charges on embezzlement and tax evasion. You'll find his mugshot if you pull up Interpol's website today, one of the most wanted criminals in the world.
Matt:

[00:14:00]

But back in the commune days, things were more innocent. In fact, Amdi and his comrades were famous in Denmark's peace movement, and everything was about sharing. Everything was about the group. [Eva Sorensen 00:13:52], another former comrade, explained how the system worked. They would set up this yellow bucket and people in the commune would toss their money into it, whatever they could.
Eva: If they earned wages, then they-
Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:04]
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Matt Smith: [Toss 00:14:00] their money into it, whatever they could.
Eva Sorensen: If they earned wages, then they put them there, and then you were part of it. If you'd got your money and kept them, then you weren't part of it. You could still work for them, or bee with them, but you wouldn't be part of it.
Matt Smith: People wanted to be part of it. This is where the carefree collective took a big step toward the global network of financial fraud it was about to become.
Amy Walters: For Amdi, this economic revolution needed to grow around the world. Walter Hansen was Amdi's best friend back then.
Walter Hansen: The idea is precisely to send young people out into the third world to see the poverty, to see the misery, to awaken their revolutionary spirit because of all the injustice, and then come home and be a revolutionary.
Matt Smith: Revolutionary as a violent overthrow of established government?
Walter Hansen: Yes, of course.
Amy Walters: Walter says they realized they could get money for this revolution from the Danish state ...
Walter Hansen: There's a very, very liberal school law in Denmark. Anybody can make a private school, and you get 85% paid by the state. They saw how much money you could get out of the state if you turn the coin the right way.
Amy Walters: ... so with that money from the government, Amdi started the Tvind schools.
Matt Smith: The first were called Traveling Folk High Schools. Young followers were sent off to Nepal, India, the Middle East, and Africa on old buses. It was a young hippie's dream.
Amdi Petersen : [Danish 00:15:40]
Amy Walters: This is a video from a bus trip in 1970.
Amdi Petersen : [Danish 00:15:47]
[00:16:00]
Amy Walters:
That's Amdi. Appearing in a 1970 Danish documentary, produced by Jens Nauntofte. His message? "If we really want to learn something, then we must venture out into reality." He's sitting on these bus steps in what looks like the middle of a desert. The video has this mystical feel, and you can really see Amdi's appeal. He's a lanky six foot six, with dark blonde hair, and an intense presence.
Matt Smith: Britta Junge was happy to climb on board the Traveling Folk High School. It was 1977. She was a Danish hippie with a desire to do good and see the world.
Britta Junge:
[00:18:00]
I had just completed my college, and it was famous at time to go out and travel to somewhere remote in the world; so I went to an introduction meeting, and I immediately decided that I wanted to join the Traveling Folk High School.
Matt Smith: At the time, Britta said it was inspiring, and she got her adventure: A bus trip to India she says she never would have taken on her own.
Britta Junge: The travel home from India was incredible. We had, we traveled through Baluchistan, the southern Pakistan which was a desert, bumping like this for days, angry, and confused, and sad, and lonely, and ... There was nothing you could do: You're in the middle of the desert, and our bus broke down. The more exhausted we were, the more our vulnerability was shown.
Eva Sorensen: Britta was just beginning her journey. The Teachers Group was in charge, with Amdi Peterson at the wheel.
Amy Walters: It wasn't until 1980 that she joined the Teachers Group herself. That's when she met Amdi Petersen for the first time.
Britta Junge: I remember there were no windows at all in the room where we met him, and he was wearing white gloves, and then there was a very special atmosphere, and I think we all thought it was quite a great moment.
Amy Walters: By joining the Teachers Group, Britta handed over the dwindling independence she had left. Amdi's idea of tossing money into the yellow bucket had evolved. Now, there were three principles Britta and every Teachers Group member had to sign on to.
Matt Smith: The first is called "Common Time." Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, each member's time belongs to the group ...
Amy Walters: The next, "Common Economy." The salary, the income of the members, also belongs to the group. It works off an assumption the group will provide in return.
Matt Smith: ... and finally, what's called "Common Distribution." The Teachers Group can call members away at any moment and send them anywhere in the world. Britta was sent to the southern part of Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique. She thought she was working against apartheid and making the world a better place.
Britta Junge: I was responsible for finances, budgets, and reporting, and things like that.
Matt Smith: One of her jobs was applying for grants for a Teachers Group organisation called Development Aid People to People, or DAPP. Britta was told to look out for grants with big salaries, Western salaries. The money was very important ...
Amy Walters: Here's the thing, Britta said she never got paid that salary. The Common Economy meant no one in the Teachers Group received a salary, according to Britta.
Britta Junge: I was member of the Teachers Group, and everybody knows that when, if you are a member of the teacher group, then you have also agreed to common economy. I have worked in 10 years in Zimbabwe, in Africa, without receiving a salary.
Matt Smith:
[00:24:00]
Dozens of people are pretending to receive salaries, and that money is going out of the country?
Britta Junge: Yes.
Amy Walters: Britta says the grant money that was supposed to find the salaries in Africa was going to the Teachers Group, at the direction of Amdi Peterson himself.
Britta Junge: This plan, that is definitely from the level of Amdi to generate more income to the Teacher Group. That is why it was important.
Amy Walters: Those salaries were only one stream of money.
Matt Smith: In the early nineties, the Teachers Group expanded into the used clothing bin business. Used clothes were collected in Denmark, then sold in Africa. The money would pay for a project, a school or a hospital. There were sometimes real projects, but DAPP was also soliciting grants for the same projects.
Britta Junge: You would definitely see bricks and projects established, but you will not know how much funds have come via the used clothing system. As an insider, I know that the clothing is sold, and you used the money to fulfill the aim of the project.
Matt Smith: It was a shell game. Projects were funded twice, from Grants and from the clothing sales, so the leftover money, Britta said it was scuttled out of the country.
Britta Junge: With planes, we hired local planes to transport the local currency every week.
Matt Smith: You rented airplanes to carry cash?
Britta Junge: Yes.
Matt Smith: Then Britta realized what was going on. With the grants and clothing sales, money was pouring in, but it wasn't going to the Africans. Britta realized more money was going back to Denmark than they were bringing in. She was carrying it herself, bags of it.
Britta Junge: When I, when it coincided with my going to Denmark, which I did every three months, or there would be another person going as well, then we could carry the money in a bag on our stomach. Three bags of money, local currency money.
Matt Smith: The money was going to the Teachers Group, and that's what the Danish court documents say too, money meant for charity projects in Africa was instead transferred to Teachers Group accounts, some of it reserved for Amdi Peterson's, quote, "free disposal."
Amy Walters: The money, the fraud, the lack of freedom, it was weighing on Britta, and in 1995 it became too much. Britta left Angola, she left the Teachers Group, but by then, there were new recruits ...
Britta Junge: Africans, or local Africans, they were actually invited to join the Teachers Group.
Amy Walters: ... and a new source of income.
Britta Junge: The aim of having Africans in the Teachers Group is also to have more heads to earn money, to earn salaries for the Teachers Group.
Amy Walters: We told Britta what we'd found, that the US government spent more than a hundred and thirty million dollars on Planet Aid projects in Africa.
Matt Smith: Planet Aid, a Teachers Group organization.
Britta Junge: It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Planet Aid money would be used in the same system.
Al Letson: Long before Britta left the Teachers Group, speculation about Amdi was already brewing in the Danish press. In 1977, the same year Britta met him, Amdi went into hiding, and in 1998, a former headmaster wrote to Denmark's Ministry of Education, and called the group "a dangerous cult," accusing Amdi of practicing psychological terror, and cutting members off from family members and friends. In 2001, Danish police filed a warrant for Amdi Petersen's arrest. Amdi's passport was flagged flying through Los Angeles. He was arrested, and after six months, flew to Denmark for trial.
Along with several high-ranking Teachers Group members, Amdi was charged with tax fraud and embezzling the equivalent of almost nine million dollars. It was one of the biggest high-profile trials Denmark has ever seen. In the years that followed, two Teachers Group members were convicted, but at the end of the first trial, Amdi Peterson was cleared. He fled Denmark immediately after the ruling, and as it turns out, never returned. New charges were filed against him just days later, but by then, Amdi was gone. Knud [Hargard 00:24:19] was the lead investigator on the Danish trial, and he says what Tvind did in Denmark is exactly what it's doing in the USA ...
Knud: I think it was the same, what happened here in Denmark. [Lots 00:24:33]. Much more. It's much more money we're talking about in the USA.
Al Letson:
[00:28:00]
... and the thing is, the USDA knew. They knew about the Danish case, they knew about the Teachers Group, they also knew about the ties between the Teachers Group and Planet Aid, but the agency continued giving Planet Aid grants worth tens of millions of dollars intended for projects in Malawi and Mozambique. When we come back, Matt and Amy take us back to Malawi for a closer look at the people who worked on those projects.
Female: This looked as lovely, working very hard and getting [return 00:25:03]. We were forced. It was not voluntary.
Al Letson: That's coming up next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Emmanuel: Hey, folks, it's Emmanuel Martinez from Reveal. I'm here to ask you for a quick favor. Tens of thousands of you listen to a podcast each week, and we want to know more about you and what you think of the show, so please take a minute and visit surveynerds.com/reveal to tell us. It'll only take two minutes, honest, and you'll really help us out. That link again, surveynerds.com/reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. Today on Reveal, we're following more than a hundred million dollars that US taxpayers spent on an NGO called Planet Aid. The money was meant to help with food, health care, and education in Malawi and Mozambique, but our Reveal reporters, Matt Smith and Amy Walters, found a hidden link. It turns out Planet Aid was born out of the Teachers Group, whose members were convicted of embezzlement and tax fraud in Denmark over a decade ago. Denmark is where the group began. Today, their leader, Mogens Amdi Peterson, is still on the run, and the lead investigator in the Danish case warns that the Teachers Group may be following the same playbook, but this time with Planet Aid projects; so Matt and Amy take us back to Malawi for a closer look at where those US dollars are going.
Matt Smith: We met up with Marco [Zibaya 00:26:51] at his home about an hour outside of Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. His house is walled off from the main street. Actually, it's more like a wide dirt road. Children are everywhere. Marco used to manage Planet Aid's Farmers' Club projects, intended to make local farmers more self-sufficient. Planet Aid's projects were run by another Teachers Group organization called Development Aid People to People, or DAPP Malawi. Marco worked for DAPP. The Teachers Group is a maze of organizations, and it's complicated on purpose. Looking through court documents, a 1995 memo from Amdi Petersen reveals his plan to, quote, "Lay down a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders."
Marco: I'll show you those domains, how we're paying contribution through National Bank.
Matt Smith: Marco is showing us piles of documents. They're bank deposit slips that he saved. He would collect a portion of his co-workers' salaries as part of the Teachers Group Common Economy. The money went back to the Teachers Group.
Amy Walters: What is this?
Matt Smith: This the account for one of the teachers
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:04]
Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:53:03] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Amy: What is this?
Marco: This is the account for one of the Teacher's Group members. These are the contributions.
Matt: On the back of the slips, Marco wrote down the names of each person he'd take money from and how much he took. It went straight to the personal bank account of Teacher's Group leaders.
Marco: Ibn Petersen and Ula Thompson, they are the account holder on behalf of Teacher's Group in Malawi.
Matt: They get to buy cars and pizza with these money?
Marco: We don't know what they can use, because we deposit the money in their accounts. Ula Thompson is the husband to Lisbeth Thompson.
Matt: You may have trouble understanding Marco's accent. He said that the money he was collecting went into the personal bank accounts of two Teacher's Group bosses. Ibn Petersen and Ula Thompson, and Ula is the husband of Lisbeth Thompson. She's pretty high up in the Teacher's Group. She's the country director of DAPP Malawi, which runs the USDA projects for Planet Aid in that country.
Amy: While researching the story we spoke to about a dozen African members of the Teacher's Group. All of them gave a portion of their salary to the group. From 20% to 100%, everything they earned. Marco was no exception. He joined the Teacher's Group in 2006 and made contributions too.
Marco: I'm paying the Danish money using my salary money for contribution every month.
Amy: Marco said he was pressured to sign a contract, promising he would never get the money back. We got a copy of one from another Teacher's Group member. People who signed it also agreed the same principles Amdi Petersen dreamed up back in Denmark in 1970. Their time, money, freedom, non of that is their own. They signed their lives over to the Teacher's Group.
[00:30:00]
Marco:
When I came home I was still thinking, how can Danish people forcing us Africans to sign. Even those Danish they get a lot of money, but us we're getting a little then we are forced to pay contribution. I was so sad because I was forced to sign for it. I want to secure my job.
Amy: As a member of the Teacher's Group, Marco had to submit a budget showing how he spent his personal money every week. Remember, his money no longer belonged to him. The final straw-
Marco: This is my wife, my son, [Kilali 00:30:33].
Amy: Marco was told his family, his wife, his son and his two daughters were an extraneous expense, he was barred from supporting them. After 15 years without any other prospects he quit. He left the Teacher's Group.
Matt: There are hundreds of Teacher's Group members all over Malawi.
Female: Those money which they took from our salaries went straight to the Teacher's Group.
Matt: That's the voice of another Malawian, a USDA Farmer's Club manager. She still works for DAPP Malawi and still a member of Teacher's Group. To protect her job we agreed not to use her name. She claims the Teacher's Group was also docking their pay.
Female: They gave the organization $350 but what I'm getting from DAPP is $100.
Matt: That's something Marco confirmed. Donor funded salary weren't paid in full. One amount was written into the budget but people were paid much less.
Marco: It was written, 350, but she's getting $100 per month in salary. It's a tricky way of doing it.
Female: It's like slavery.
Amy: Slavery, she says.
Female:
[00:32:00]
For me I think it's the same. Because you're forcing to do something which you don't want, slavery was also the same thing. People were forced to do something they don't want. Working very hard and getting little. We were forced, it was not voluntarily.
Amy: These employees became a cash cow for the Teacher's Group.
Matt: They were taking money from projects too.
Amy: That of all the several DAPP Malawi invoices and financial spreadsheets from 2013 to 2014, these weren't the kind of documents with lining items for farm equipment or livestock, instead they were these large numbers, unidentified transfers, as big as $400,000 moving from DAPP Malawi to the Teacher's Group African headquarters in Zimbabwe. I showed the paperwork to DAPP Malawi's former controller, Harrison [Longly 00:32:53].
Matt: These are all different sort of bills and invoices and stuff to Zimbabwe. We're getting to 1/4 being almost $400,000. We go to another quarter and we have close to $400,000, we go to another quarter ... Well, anyway, quarter after quarter it's hundreds of thousands of dollars getting to be millions of dollars. What's going on here?
Harrison: To me it's what I will call systematic fraud.
Matt: Harrison is one of several insiders who told us 50% to 70% of the US government grant money was being siphoned away, one transaction at a time and most of them was headed to the Teacher's Group African headquarters in Zimbabwe. Harrison said he found it difficult to get a straight answer from anyone about why, because the group was a cult with an oath of secrecy. Documents and interviews with current and former employees indicate the money was sent on to other accounting entities around the world. All controlled by the Teacher's Group.
Malawi is a country of 16 million people with a Gross Domestic Product of $4.2 billion. Economically it's like a small city in the US. If tens of millions of dollars from the USDA have been dropped into that smaller pool, you would have seen ripples.
Marco: The impact that was suppose to be had as Malawi as a nation was suppose to be huge. That's why I'm putting it around 70%.
Matt: We wanted another opinion, so we went to Stephan Kasela. He retired in 2015 as chief of the money laundering section of the US attorney's office in Maryland. We showed him the financial data from inside DAPP Malawi. He said, the evidence we collected is the kind of thing that draws the interest of federal fraud investigators.
Stephan: It's certainly smoke and it's certainly a launching pad. It's something that an investigator would look at. Why are these tens of millions of dollars in government funds going to an umbrella organization that seems to be dispersing it all over the world to entities that are related. The next step you would take is what are they getting in return. Are these services actually being performed?
Matt: DAPP Malawi's country director, Lisbeth Thompson, approved those unusual transfers, according to a staff. AMy and I caught up with her in an AIDS conference in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. Neither of us had met her before, she seemed a little anxious, smiling but nervous.
Amy: Hi, Lisbeth Thompson I'm Amy Walters, nice to meet you.
Matt: Matt, with Reveal Radio in United States, it's a public radio show. Do you have a second to talk about DAPP Malawi and what you're doing in this country?
Amy: Let me just stop here for a second and explain what exactly is going on. We've reached out to Planet Aid representatives in the United States over a dozen times, hopping to interview someone there, that doesn't happened. Their PR firm repeatedly told us no one from Planet Aid was going to speak to us and hinted that legal action. We've telephoned attorneys and individuals close to Amdi Petersen, who's running the Teacher's Group. They acted like they didn't know what we were talking about or just didn't call back.
Before we left Malawi, we wanted to talk to someone who could explain what was happening to this US money. Then to make life better for Malawian farmers. It wasn't clear if Lisbeth Thompson knew who we were, but it was rather clear she didn't want to talk.
Lisbeth: Anyway, I think it's not the appropriate time.
Matt: We've been working on this, looking at your organization for almost a year, we've talked to at least a dozen of people inside your organization and what they say individually, one by one as we've interviewed them is that your organization is scheming US government funds. Your own people. The people in charge of your money said you're stealing money.
Lisbeth: That cannot be true. I'm definitely not stealing any money.
Matt: What happened to the money?
Lisbeth: A lot of good programs, I can assure you.
Matt: What are the good programs?
Lisbeth: Both Farmer's Club, education, health, everything, and it has been really good.
Matt: We've gone to Farmer's Clubs all over Malawi and they say their live changed not at all from when you arrived and from when you left.
Lisbeth: I think you've talked to the wrong people.
Amy: Harrison, DAPP's former financial controller, was one of the people who said he also saw fraud.
Matt: Why would your own controller say the money was stolen? Now he says the money was stolen.
Lisbeth: I also don't believe it, honestly.
Matt: I told her what we've seen. That we've visited Farmer's Clubs and that at every instance the Farmer's themselves told us that was a lie. Again, Lisbeth Thompson disagree.
Lisbeth: It that's what you want to portray, okay. I have been there as well, I know what has happened.
Matt: What happened?
Lisbeth:
[00:38:00]
Exactly that the programs which we were to implement has been implemented, a very very good outcome, farmers has been assisted in becoming food secure, and that I can assure you.
Amy: When we asked her if she knew Amdi Petersen, she refused to answer anymore questions.
Lisbeth: [crosstalk 00:38:07] because I'm just going for lunch.
Al Letson: Lisbeth Thompson would not acknowledge any wrong doing by her organization and insisted the USDA money was going exactly where it was suppose to go. The people of Malawi. Who's making sure that the US government money is being properly spent? The answer to that question had us ping pong around the world. From US offices in Malawi to Kenya and back to the US. We'll wrap things up when we come back. You're listening to Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Amy: Hey listeners, it's Amy Walters again, from Reveal. The story you're hearing is part of an investigation mass methionine we've been working on for months, and there's more to come. Head to our website and subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss out on the next chapter. Tracking a reputed cult leader, allegedly siphoning millions of dollars in US foreign aid, your tax dollars. Just visit Revealnews.org/newsletter to subscribe.
Al Letson:

[00:40:00]

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. So far in today's show, our reporters, Matt Smith and Amy Walters have been telling the story of the US foreign aid project gone horribly wrong. It starts with the Massachusetts NGO called Planet Aid. An offshoot of the Teacher's Group. A reputed cult that started on the Danish commune in the 1970s. In the last decade two high ranking Teacher's Group members were convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion in a Danish trial. The leader, Morgens Amdi Petersen, is still wanted by the law.
It was during that trial in 2004 that the USDA started sending multi-million dollar grants to Planet Aid, now the total tops $130 million and the US government is continuing to send more money today. When Matt and Amy went to Malawi to check on a handful of Planet Aid projects, they saw hardly any sign of that money on the ground. Instead they met with dissatisfied farmers, unhappy projects managers and they saw evidence of mismanaged money and potential fraud. Worse than that, the Malawians that the US money was suppose to help say that they were forced to hand over their salaries to the Teacher's Group. One woman compared it to slavery. How did the US government let all this to happen? I'll leave that to our reporters, Matt and Amy.
Matt: Just geographically speaking you can understand why it might be difficult for the US government to check up on projects they funded in Malawi. Washington DC is about a third the way around the globe, but US officials do have this advantage. When we were trying to find DAPP Malawi's offices in the capital we ended up in the US embassy instead. They are neighbors. DAPP and the US government they share a wall. We called Edward Monster, that's the name of the press spokesman at the US embassy in Malawi. We wanted to know why the USDA kept spending money on an organization with a history of fraud and whether they checked to make sure the projects were happening.
Edward: Basically we don't have anyone here at the US embassy in Malawi that works on USDA programs.
Matt: We needed to contact USDA offices in Nairobi, Kenya. Over 1000 miles away.
Edward:
[00:42:00]
The USDA office based in Nairobi has regional responsibility and it covers any USDA activities or some of the projects here in Malawi, so that's all handled out of Malawi at Kate's office, Kate's staff. I wish I could help you Amy, but I don't have anyone here ...
Matt: Amy and I called Kate Snips in Nairobi.
Amy: We're here in Malawi so I just wanted to double check that there was no one here for us to talk to at all in the entire country of Malawi?
Kate: That is correct. We have no USDA staff in Malawi, none.
Matt: How do you find out if the money is being spent properly?
Kate: We have very extensive monitoring and evaluation staff in headquarters that actually came out multiple times from Washington and did those reviews.
Amy: How many times?
Kate: They don't come from our staff here because I'm not trained in monitoring and evaluation and contracting ...
Amy: Kate never told us how many times USDA representatives visited Planet Aid sites since the grant started in 2004. She just said they visited. It didn't sound like they saw the same things we did. Abandoned fields, betrayed farmers and staff with real suspicions about what happened with that money.
Matt: Kate says she did visit Malawi once.
Kate: I personally went out there just to visit one sight near a school that opened up-
Amy: The [Dawa 00:43:25] school.
Matt: That was 2012. Photos show her at the ribbon cutting ceremony alongside Planet Aid's top liaison to the USDA.
Kate: Everything that I saw in all of our monitoring I know I got feedback it was on the up and up. Again, I'm suppose to [inaudible 00:43:42] to my public affairs office and I recommend you contact Sally Klusaritz.
Amy: Just a review, we started looking for answers with the US embassy offices in Malawi, then we were routed to Nairobi, Kenya, over a 1000 miles away, now we're being sent to Washington DC. We called Sally.
Female: Good afternoon, Public Affairs.
Amy: Hi, I am calling for Sally Klusaritz, is she available?
Female: She's at a meeting right now.
Amy: Okay, this is Amy Walters with Reveal. Do you know when Sally Klusaritz will be out of her meeting?
Female: No, I don't. Actually she just went in so it could be an hour or it could be more or less.
Amy: I left several messages but Sally, the then head of public affairs for the USDA foreign agriculture service, she never called back. We did receive an email though, and in it Sally confirmed what Kate said, they don't have any USDA staff on the ground in Malawi, but Sally had a completely different story about who was in-charge of monitoring, she wrote the Planet Aid projects were in fact monitored out of Nairobi, by Kate.
Matt: At this point it felt like we were getting the run around. No one was taking responsibility. We weren't the first people to start asking the USDA about Planet Aid. Back in 2002, two years before the USDA gave Planet Aid their first multi-million grant Amdi Petersen was arrested in Los Angeles before returning to Denmark for trial. His name was all over the Danish press. In a few articles he even made it across the pond, and over the years more critical reports kept surfacing.
Amy: USDA knew, in 2006 there was an internal memo with the subject 'Troubling News.' We put in a freedom of information act request and found the email alerting the USDA to the ties between the Teacher's Group and Planet Aid.
Matt:
[00:46:00]
The USDA looked into it, they sent an inquiry to the US Embassy in Denmark and ask their office of inspector general to open an investigation but the inspector general's office declined, saying they needed more evidence of criminal activity despite everything we know about Amdi Petersen's criminal record. Over the years there were several red flags, from the press , regular citizens and reputable NGOs, Save the Children, UNICEF, we also spoke to Nud Hargard, he was the lead investigator in the Danish case. He told us all the USDA needed to do was call. He had some things he wanted to tell the Americans.
Nude: I think that US authorities could write to the Danish police. It would be possible for them to see what we have in our evidence. They could get a copy of our case.
Matt: He never heard from the USDA or any US officials.
Al Letson: Matt and Amy join me in the studio to now to wrap things up. That money from USDA grants, over $130 million, up to 70% was allegedly taken from the projects it was meant for and stripped from employees salaries. At least some of that money went to the Teacher's Group but for what?
Matt: Well, we don't know all of it but we do know Amdi Petersen doesn't shy away from spending money. He had condos worth $10 million in Miami. There was a Teacher's Group Yacht. Properties around the world. Don't forget about the dog.
Amy: That's right. Amdi was collecting dogs. He had two in Miami, one for each condo. Before that they were actually three, all of them named Boris. When he was living in [Debabo 00:47:33] and one of them actually got lost. What he did was hire the second best animal tracker in the whole country, also a helicopter, a platoon of cars, bikes, people, all to find the dog. After two years, nothing, they never found him.
Al Letson: What about Amdi Petersen, where do people think he is now?
Amy:
[00:48:00]
Mexico, and it seems he actually hasn't given up on those spending habits. People we talked to who saw Amdi in the past couple of years, mostly African Teacher's Group members, the folks we talked to in Malawi plus Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the teachers who flies them to Mexico, Las Pulgas, it's less than a 100 miles south of the border and beautiful baha California.
Al Letson: That's not that far.
Matt: No, we've seen areal photos of his compound, it's massive. Marble floors, we've seen chipping manifest for fine crystal. We have documents showing that Teacher's Group itself appraised the complex more than $20 million. Jackson, the employee working on the Planet Aid farmer's project in Malawi, he was told by his Teacher's Group bosses, the money from the USDA was going straight to Mexico.
Al Letson: Did you ever talk to Planet Aid?
Amy: We tried. Remember we talked to that woman heading out their projects in Malawi, she insisted they were not stealing money and PR firm Planet Aid hired emailed us a response. It said in part, "Planet Aid has a long and successful track record managing US government projects in Africa."
Al Letson: What about the USDA, they didn't really see anything wrong?
Amy: Our freedom of information act requires for dozens of emails, phone calls, meetings, between Planet Aid's lead fundraiser, actually one of the highest ranking member of the Teacher's Group and the USDA. They even met with Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the USDA. Before we left for Malawi, I did get a chance, I talked to Ron Kushawn, he headed up the foreign agricultural service for most of the time these grants were going to Planet Aid and he told us he had received the FBI files linking Planet Aid to the Teacher's Group, but "We did not have anything that precluded a grant with that organization." That was what he said.
Matt: When we got back from Malawi we tried again, we went to the office in Washington DC and asked for their public information officer. Her name is Sally Klusaritz. Here is what happened.
Amy: We were going to try to call up to Sally Klusaritz.
Female: She's not available.
[00:50:00]
Amy:
She's not available today or what [inaudible 00:50:00].
Female: Nothing else can be done. Therefore you're going to have to go out with that microphone, you can't come here with that microphone, you have to go out.
Matt: We never got passed the front desk. The guards tossed us out.
Amy: It turns out Sally Klusaritz actually retired from the USDA not long after our visit. Ron Kloshawn doesn't head the foreign agricultural service anymore but he's still with the USDA. Just hours before our deadline the USDA sent us an email and I have it here. It says, "None of their formal compliance, reviews, their ad hoc reviews, their side evaluations or their audits of the Planet Aid projects have yielded any significant findings or concerns." It doesn't seem like they think anything is wrong.
Al Letson: Since you started reporting this story, have you guys heard from former Teacher's Group members?
Matt: Absolutely, we've spoken to dozens of former members who told us they had been part of the group and they wanted us to know, they wanted people to know what's really going on.
Amy: In Denmark they actually have support groups going for former members. It's really hard for some of them to realize their lives have been caught up in something like this. I don't know if something like that could happen for the people we spoke with in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and Malawi.
Al Letson: That's Reveal's Matt Smith and Amy Walters. They're going to continue to follow this story, so be sure to check out our website, revealnews.org for their updates. We had additional reporting by [inaudible 00:51:25] in Malawi, Kutzai [Chimangwe 00:51:27] in Zimbabwe and the Bilinski Media reporters, Morgan Crona and Eva Young in Denmark. Our editors for this story were Robert Rosingthal and Amy Powell. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Clair C. Notmolin. Our theme music was by Camerado/Lightening. Our head of studio was Christa Scharfenberg. Susanne Reber is our executive edior. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
[00:52:00] Next time on Reveal. [inaudible 00:51:55] made a business out of shuttling Latinos to work illegally in Chinese restaurants all over the country.
Female: Listen, you have to use your head with those Mexicans, understand. You have to scare them a little, then you won't have a problem.
Al Letson: But she had a problem when authorities tapped her phones.
Female: We're busted, he's going to get the emigration office involved.
Al Letson: That's coming up next week. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The John S and James L Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.
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